Sunday, August 30, 2009

Super Sexe

Dear Readers: I'm next in line for a post, but I'm up in Montreal, Canada on vacation and won't be back for a few more days. In the meantime though, here's the most comics-related thing I've seen in several days of wandering around this famously charming city: Le Club Super Sexe, a strip joint on Rue Sainte-Catherine. See you later this week!

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Aesthetics of Crap*

For my money, as elaborate and informative as some cd collections can be, there hasn't been a boxed set that tops the aesthetic merit of a vinyl lp in a gatefold cardboard sleeve. As an art-object, the record album has a presence and significance that cds, in all their permutations, have aspired to but rarely (if ever) achieve. And this- despite the stellar work of world-class designers. The flaw is not theirs, but in the object itself. The cd simply does not have the significance, the scale, the mass of the lp, and its packaging cannot help but reflect that. Even at its most elaborate, the cd and its package are playing against a stacked deck.

One cannot compare the experience of purchasing, opening, holding, examining and finally listening to the lp version of "Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (or "the White Album" or "Physical Graffiti" or "Sinatra at the Sands"-- whatever) with the experience of the cd of the same material-despite whatever aural improvements there may(or may not) have been. And as its been pointed out elsewhere-we no longer find a moment,put on an album and listen-in the way once encouraged by the record album and its packaging.

Has the diminishment of the object meant an equivalent reduction in cultural importance? Has the transformation of the vehicle of music had an impact on the manner in which we listen to it , and how deeply we appreciate it?

How tightly bound is the music with its packaging?

Well, if popular music is no longer an agent of social change, as it may have been decades ago, it's for any number of reasons; the minimizing ( or near disappearance) of the lp/object notwithstanding. But Kevin's last post, "Troubles with Tribbles" (great title), has me thinking, not only about the business of "art-comics", but about some of the cultural and aesthetic ripples induced by the packages that deliver those comics.

Which is a roundabout way of asking-which is more important, the comics or the package? And is the experience of the one inexorably bound with the other?

Today comics come to us in any number of ways, but 30 years ago (in the U.S.) that was not the case. There were newspaper strips and comic books. Every now and again there would be the odd collection of a daily newspaper strip-"Doonesbury", "Peanuts" or "Far Side"; very rarely one might stumble across a collected edition of material first presented in comic books. ( "Superman: (or Batman) from the 30's to the 70's" or "Origins of Marvel Comics") More often, an important comic book story-arc might be collected by DC or Marvel in giant-size in "Treasury Editions"; really just oversized comic books printed on larger sheets of newsprint with the addition of cardstock covers. And of course, more adult-oriented material was printed black and white and magazine size.

Package design, such as it was, was generic, simple--and while the variety of packages served a purpose-that purpose was primarily for easy identification on the magazine rack, rather than any aesthetic imperative. The cost of these books(in the late 70's) ran from .25 cents for a traditional "floppy", $1.00 to $1.50 for b & w magazine comics and Treasury-size editions - up to $6-$9.00 for ultra-deluxe hard-cover comic strip collections. Which is to say-they were all affordable -to the general comic-book buying public.

Obviously we live in a different world, a different market- or rather markets-which Kevin addressed in his last post. And package design has evolved as the markets and technology have. But the technology for good book design has always been there-it is the shared sense that this material (comics) is deserving of consideration as something more than a throw-away, along with the growth of a supportive market, that has driven the aestheticization of the comic "book" (and I use book in the broadest sense).

It is right then to acknowledge, that the aesthetics of the comics package-have been driven by a need for cultural legitimacy --and are bound up with the evolution of a specific marketplace. These aesthetics are not only "formal"(in the traditional art-school application of the term) but ideological-and economic, with the latter frequently serving the purposes of the former.

Not to beat a dead horse(as it were) but --Kramer's Ergot no.7, which is 16" x 21" and retailed for $125. when first released, is likely the apotheosis of this evolution. Its not likely that we will see anything like it again--at least until the economy climbs out of the gutter. Its size and ambition are unparalleled. The inclusion of so many of the creme de la creme of contemporary cartoonists in one anthology is likely a unique event. Its scope and design assure its consideration as an authentic art -object, and its price tag, no doubt an economic necessity,--serves its larger ideological purpose-which is to lay claim to the status of "Art" --for the anthology, for the cartoonists, for alternative comics, for all of us in the field.

pretty friggin' awesome.

I haven't read it.

In fact-outside of the small-press conventions I do...

I haven't even seen it.

(Ok-that's hyperbole. But I barely had time to flip a page or two at the cons--I'm working here, dammit!--and honestly, I was afraid of doing damage to the pages. No, I'm being serious.)

That I have not read it is not because I object to the enterprise--far from it. As an artist, I salivate at the thought of working at that scale--c'mon! who we kidding? I admire the hell out of the ambition, the guts-the sheer chutzpah of this project. Man-I only wish I had the bucks, the imagination , not to mention the temerity to put it together.

But I haven't read it. and I'm not likely to anytime in the near future. But I have read a lot about it.

Listen-I live in upstate NY now. At my local comics shop they've never even heard of Kramer's (what the f&*k you call it? what's an)Ergot. The local B & N doesn't have it either. And if I ever spend $125. on one comic my wife won't just kill me-she'll do something else to me first. But if I ever did spend that kind of dough on a single comic it'd be "Little Nemo" first, right? Right.

The fact that KE7 is unavailable to someone such as myself is not a failing of the book-or the publisher-or of the marketplace-or even me.( well, partly me.) In fact-its inaccessibility works to the publisher's advantage. (no- I don't think they planned it-they want to sell billions, zillions!-we all do.) Its scarcity-or rarity-lends mystery and authority to its larger than life status-to its aura of art. You may not have seen it, but you've heard of it-like the Abominable Snowman... or Bigfoot.

And as we all know-in the age of digital reproduction-art lives and dies with its aura. That's why Mary Boone or Gagosian galleries are the neo-fascist tombs they are, and why that imposing neo-SS officer sits silently behind that judge's bench in the back of Boone(what has he been doing all these years?*)-the whole enterprise creates an atmosphere of money, power and significance.

And it works. Seeing a crappy painting at a premier Chelsea gallery is not like seeing a crappy painting downtown or in upstate New York. Art has aura--crap doesn't.

Which brings me to Wednesday Comics.

There ain't no aura about this, baby. (well-- there's a different odor surrounding this project, but more on that if we have time). This is newsprint-big and cheap and ready for packing dishes---and super-heroes, bold and colorful and as stupid as they ever were.

And I love it. I have no idea what anyone has been saying about this project-so I'm likely to be off the wall here in my opinion-but I think it's terrific-the most exciting comics package since-well, Kramers Ergot no.7.

But unlike the big book- it is everywhere-and I can actually buy it. It's four bucks. And it's BIG--comics big and beautiful and ready to be splashed on the wall-they way they were meant to be. Eye-candy for the soul of the working stiff.

Does it have problems? You bet. Do I like every strip? No. Are some better than others? Definitely. Would I have preferred to see more diversity, imagination in the genres, styles, etc. etc. yadda, yadda,yadda-of course-but this is DC corporate comics- fer chrissakes!

Is it art?

%6#@^&&!!!! F*&K man! I don't know! And what's more -I don't give a sh*t! I just love turning--and snapping back the pages-enveloping myself in the images; being caught up in a pulpy adventure story once a week. The tension between the bold, colorful imagery, the density of the ink and the frail weight of newsprint. These are the pleasures it affords.

Wednesday Comics makes no claims to art. In fact -its package moves in the opposite direction, away from art and towards the disposable. And the format celebrates the disposable, it revels in its nature as cultural detritus-it's crap. It'll rot your teeth and eat up your insides. And therein lies its joy--its life--its rewards. Comics are deeply invested in crap(or is it the other way around?)--and it is the discovery of something--inexplicably wondrous --within crap-that is so unexpected, so revelatory, so subversive and so central to the nature of the medium. It is the genie in the bottle--and the adults, the authorities, the so-called experts-- are blind to it. F*%k 'em--it's ours.

Have we really improved on the .10 or .12 cent comic book? Or the Sunday Funnies? Are the comics that much better? Or have we gotten so caught up in the imprimatur of art --and cultural legitimacy-- that we risk losing something less tangible but more --felt? Something more authentic?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I know the direct market makes demands on its publishers-and in order to survive they have to use whatever tools are at their disposal-aura, mystique, whatever you got. But I do know that the next time I print a book, I'm going to think long and hard about its package, about its aura--about the genie in the bottle.

some notes:

* I mean "crap" in the best possible sense of the word

* alternative title: or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cheez Doodles"

this essay deals with print comics--still the predominant arena for those of us working in "art-comics"-and so webcomics, and other digital manifestations are left for another discussion.

* I know someone out there is going to feel the need to write and tell me who that guy at Mary Boone is and what he does. thanks in advance.

Sgt.Pepper cost $5.49 in 1967. But you could probably pick it up for $3.99

Conversely-or perversely-the change in direction from high art to low-(or perhaps more accurately from art to entertainment)-exemplified in Wednesday Comics--imbues the rather generic offerings in its pages with a life they may not otherwise have in other circumstances. (the novelty of the format also impacts the work) Might one suggest then that weaker comics are more susceptible to the influence of context? I'm throwing that one out there without thinking about it.

****there is something in the tension between the bold color and illusionistic imagery, the density of the ink and the weight of newsprint, the paper's frailty and the saturation of the ink in the paper. Newsprint is a deeply under-appreciated support.

this is the last time I use Kramer's Ergot as a whipping post-I swear.*

Friday, August 14, 2009

Troubles With Tribbles

(Image from Star Trek: the Animated Series © Filmation)

Geoff's post responding to Frank Santoro's observations about the bifurfaction of the comics market has me contemplating my own geezerdom (Tuesday was my - yikes! - 47th birthday) and place in this fractured continuum. Like Geoff, I went to university art schools and like Geoff I underwent a pretty severe hazing. In my first year (1980) I produced a "comicsy" painting (suffice it to say the dancing frog from the old Warner Bros. cartoon was involved) and had the pleasure of seeing it held up to the class as an example of what NOT to do. Traumatic stuff, but I take solace in the failure of Google images to turn up a single example of that prof's own work.

I agree that these sort of experiences can't help but contribute to a profoundly different attitude toward making comics (assuming that they don't completely eradicate the desire to make them) among artists of say, the last quarter century but, per my last post here, I see the ruptures that Santoro and Geoff discuss between these types of comics and what's left of the comics "mainstream" in terms of a larger economic/technological process (yeah, yeah - Postmodernism) that's been splintering and re-splintering the whole industrialized world since the 60's. For this reason, I like Santoro's Boichelian tree diagram - and feel it's clear that we've already advanced pretty far in terms of the branching it illustrates.

There's been some discussion of a few of these sub-forms within "art comics" here on this blog: the Fort Thunder derived style I related to "Stupidism" and the "Abstract Comics" group coalescing around Andrei Molotiu are relatively recent examples, but there are plenty of others - artists working with a more literary sensibility for example, like Jessica Abel, autobiographical cartoonists like Joe Matt, surrealist cartoonists like Hans Rickheit, and so on. To me, the interesting point is that none of these new movements ever really replaces anything older - they just keep multiplying, as though they were born pregnant like Tribbles.

This has obvious ramifications for disseminating one's work: audiences shrink as choices grow. The 1980's "ground level" comics model that allowed Dave Sim to make a decent living selling 30,000 copies of Cerebus the Aadrvark was already a profound recalibration downward of what it used to take to be considered a success in comics. But nowadays artists are aspiring (!) to models like "1000 True Fans" which wouldn't come close to covering Dave's limousine bills.

(Dave Sim)

As we slip below 1000 copies of anything, the economics of manufacturing and distributing these things (whether it's floppies, graphic novels, CD's, whatever) stop making sense. Of course, this is a moot point if all of these forms are able to migrate to the web for iTunes-style digital distribution, but the relative ease of entry that this entails poses an even greater problem for artists. Once everyone can live out their dreams of alt-cartooning without the bottlenecks of printing costs and disinterested distributors the amount of work available for sale (or for free) becomes truly mind-boggling - and audiences start getting really, really tiny. I recently read an estimate that 90% of the songs available for sale on the web don't sell even once in any given year. A year between sales is a long time even for the Long Tail.

Where does this trend lead? Do "art comics" differentiate into hundreds of mini-styles, each with audiences in the dozens? I don't know, but I think I see an interesting counter-trend: art forms like music, comics and literature that until now have relied almost entirely on "multiple" forms of reproduction have started to market "authentic" objects at much higher prices. One recent strategy in the music business has been to release extremely elaborate boxed sets of an artist's complete work, with lots of art prints, replicas of old tour swag, and other such tchotchkes.

(Image grab from

In "art comics", we're seeing something similar with publishers like Picture Box offering free art prints or even original drawings to help sell their books - to say nothing of the recent practice of producing books of comics that seem designed more for art museum gift shops than comic book stores:

(Kramers Ergot publisher Alvin Buenaventura with a copy of volume 7)

Whether these contortions will do anything to staunch the long-term trend is uncertain (I'm dubious), but the trend itself - an increase in the number of artists and art forms coupled with the increasing fragmentation of their audiences - is clear everywhere you look. Its ultimate impact even has a catchphrase: "the death of the professional".

For "art comics" artists the idea of being a "professional" probably already sounds awfully foreign (this is a milieu where "careerist" gets used as an epithet - just ask David Heatley) but let's face it: wanting an audience is at the very heart of making art, the occasional hermit notwithstanding. My sinking feeling is that the modest pool of readers the "direct market" offered to a few hundred "art comics" artists may start to look like a mass market by comparison once thousands or tens of thousands of us are trying to sell downloads on the Net.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Baby and Bathwater, over "The Bridge"

Frank Santoro's essay "The Bridge is Over" on the ComicsComics blog has really hit me hard. Jeezus I feel old. Or odd. I'm not sure which - probably both.

In the course of an analysis of the Direct Market 2009 and what he perceives as a rupture between an alternative audience and a mainstream audience, Santoro identifies something that strikes me as more significant - a generational divide in the larger comics audience, between those with a connection to comics history (ostensibly older readers) and those without (a new generation raised in an era of alternative plenty). More to the point, he extends that split to creators as well. Anyway-don't take my word for it, go read the essay (if you haven't already).

The comments around Santoro's post tend toward the economic rather than aesthetic, which is fine. Personally, I'm happy to buy my comics in whatever venue and form I find them in, which here in upstate NY tends to be online and as graphic novel or trade collection. I'm afraid I don't follow a lot of current mainstream, and so I don't much miss pamphlets (except when I'm feeling nostalgic -- and despite a great love of the form). Where I'm going to sell my work in the future-is an entirely different concern - and fuel for another post.

Nevertheless, it is the aesthetic, theoretical and historical aspects of "The Bridge" that are of interest to me. And I am troubled -- or perhaps simply disaffected. Not because there is a new model, or as Santoro puts it, comics creators unencumbered by mainstream comics history and tradition are"grafting" new techniques and traditions onto the larger"tree" that is comics. "Grafting" is part of the creative process - and I hope that those "alternative" traditions are as diverse and fruitful (ha!) as can be.

But I'm not an advocate of willful ignorance, or disdain for history or tradition simply for the sake of the new and novel (nor am I suggesting that Frank Santoro is - he's a well known devotee of comics history and he assumes the identity of "Watcher" in this essay). I'm not an advocate for the rejection of genre simply because it is genre - the rejection of stylistic choices and subjects that are bound to tradition. It smacks of throwing the baby out with the bath water, or, if you will, over the bridge, the result being the imposition or embrace of a creative limitation.

Now - Santoro's observation is not definitive, I'm not aware of any data-based research into the subject, and I'm sure there are alt-comics fans and creators of the "new generation" as tied to history as any of us geezers. But from behind the convention table, at SPX or MoCCA - one bears witness to the essential "rightness" of his supposition. (I say this as one whose books are steeped in genre and tradition.)

Years ago, I was a student in the class of a well-known art-critic who was speaking of the recent work of a contemporary photographer , much of which featured the use of mannequins. In discussions with her, he was dismayed to find out that she had no knowledge of the work of Hans Bellmer, nor did she express any interest. She didn't want to be burdened by too much history-it might freeze her creativity. In the critic's view, this weakened her work and her standing as an artist. His words have stayed with me-

"It's her job to know--her responsibility."

The lesson was- that awareness of history informs the work, broadens its scope -- it doesn't limit it. And if you want to be a world-class artist you have to engage it.

Now that's not the reason for the split Santoro identifies, the disregard for (mainstream) comics history that he speaks of springs from a different set of conditions - but the result is the same. Work that is less informed. Less interesting. Less a participant in the generations long conversation that is art.

The rupture between mainstream and alternative, the shift in the audience, the "grafting" that Santoro speaks to - may also be related to another shift-- among creators-- which I'm not sure anyone has as yet catalogued to any great degree. From the first generations of urban, working-class, self-taught, immigrants practicing the craft, to art-school trained/University educated BFA's, MFA's, and dropouts of the last 10-15 years, that shift has resulted in numerous changes to the ways in which (some) comics are perceived, packaged and understood. Attendant with that is a move towards cultural legitimacy, a standing previously unavailable to the "degenerate"medium assailed by Frederic Wertham.

I admit, I haven't given it a great deal of thought myself - but if I am to consider it, I know that art-school culture is a very different environment than the Eisner-Iger studios. And the comics produced are likely to be very different.

There are plenty of contemporary art surveys taught at University level, there are few examinations of comics history. There are plenty of classes in which one learns to draw from life, but few where one learns to spot blacks. In the first year of art school, freshman students, the "class artists" in high school because they could draw manga and Disney characters, take foundation classes wherein they learn to disavow the "slick" techniques they've practiced and admired for years.

Do these circumstances contribute to the rupture Santoro has identified? I don't know-I'm just hypothesising. It's not a negative for young art students and cartoonists/comics creators to be exposed to a variety of visual experiences and approaches-far from it. But there does exist the potential - for the establishment of a mindset that encourages distance from comics tradition and craft, and fuels the outright rejection of popular models of the form - i.e the super-hero.

It's not that corporate entities and their representatives haven't contributed to the degeneration of the super-hero themselves. They've done what they can to speed disaffection among readers. But the end result has been the de-legitimization of (mainstream) comics, of the super-hero in particular, at a time in which comics are taken more seriously than ever. And the young creators Frank Santoro encounters can't perceive the beauty of a page from a "Spider-Man" comic-simply because it is Spider-Man.

One last anecdote (I promise - no more, at least in this post). In art-school, one of my first painting classes -- I brought in a large piece for the critique.

My instructor frowned at it, dismissing it thusly:

" looks like a cartoon..."

image: Superman #15; copyright DC Comics/Warner Bros. 2009